This week’s poem is by Walt Whitman and is a coda to last week’s choice in that it references the end of another bloody conflict: the American Civil War. It is also linked to a great speech of that war given by Abraham Lincoln on this day in 1863.
O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is doneWalt Whitman (1819—1892)
Poem 190. O Captain! My Captain!
O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
On 19 November 1863, after two hours of a now largely forgotten oration given by the Hon Edward Everett (also unremembered), Abraham Lincoln rose to his feet and delivered a ten-sentence speech that outshone the previous speaker and his words and has been celebrated ever since. It was the Gettysburg Address:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln’s dedicatory remarks are concise but every word is well put, and it seems a kind of foreshadowing of the great struggle of the First World War that prompted the dedication of so many more cemeteries and monuments to the dead of many countries.
Whitman’s poem, however, marks the death of Lincoln at the close of the Civil War. Whitman worked for the government in Washington, D.C. and was greatly moved by the assassination of Lincoln, though he had never met the President.
The poem likens the dangerous and stormy period of the Civil War to the passage of a ship through a tempest, guided by the steady hand of its captain who never receives his dues, having “fallen cold and dead” before the ship docks. Each stanza ends with the dull words “cold and dead”, emphasising the sense of despair and sorrow that many in the Union ranks must have felt when they learned what had happened at Ford’s Theatre. The poem starts with a bright, celebratory note but ends funereally as the reality sinks in that though the prize has been won, it has come with a cost.
We have here two works that are linked not just by the central figure of Lincoln but by the shadow of the Civil War, and by the spectre of death. The Gettysburg Address is a model of prose just as O Captain! My Captain! is a model of poetry.
Many years ago, one of the British TV channels showed the Ken Burns documentary “The Civil War” over several evenings and I was fascinated. In time, I bought the series on DVD and have enjoyed it again. Many notable actors delivered the letters and private notes of the men and women caught up in the war, from the humble to the great, and Burns selected contemporary music to accompany the images and stories, with one exception: the piece that he chose for the title theme. “Ashokan Farewell” was written by the folk musician Jay Unger in 1982. Apart from the title, it provides the haunting backing to Paul Roebling’s reading of the “Sullivan Ballou Letter”, one of the most affecting extracts of the series:
July the 14th, 1861
My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure—and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.
But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows—when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children—is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar—that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again.
As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.
SullivanLetter from Sullivan Ballou to his wife, Sarah
I chose the poem after a search for prominent events associated with 19 November found the Gettysburg Address, which seemed to link with Remembrance Day. While I was reading Lincoln’s words and debating whether I could justify presenting them as a poem, I thought of Whitman’s poem and then I remembered “Ashokan Farewell” and Sullivan Ballou’s letter.
Finally, “O Captain! My Captain!” is the title adopted by Robin Williams’s inspirational teacher John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society. Keating’s idolisation of Whitman is reflected in his idolisation by the young men to whom he teaches poetry and the value of an independent mind and it is in the closing scene of the film that his protegés climb onto their desks, each exclaiming “Captain, My Captain” in tribute to their own fallen leader.
- Read about the poem on Wikipedia.
- Read about Abraham Lincoln on Wikipedia.
- Read about the Gettysburg Address on Wikipedia.
- Read about Sullivan Ballou on Wikipedia.
- Watch the Jay Unger and Molly Mason Family Band’s performance of “Ashokan Farewell” on YouTube.
- Listen to Paul Roebling’s reading of a shortened version of Sullivan Ballou’s letter with “Ashokan Farewell” as the backing music on YouTube.